Last week, a beluga whale approached a fishing boat off the coast of Norway. The fishermen, surprised to encounter such a sociable whale, then noticed it was wearing a harness. Once they removed it, they noticed a label on the inside: “Equipment of St. Petersburg.” The Norwegians then contacted Russian researchers, who said their whales don’t wear harnesses. Plus, belugas are social animals that typically travel in small groups, so this lone whale seemed suspicious. Experts surmised the fishermen’s new smiley friend might actually be a Russian spy.
In all fairness to the beluga, let’s be clear that it’s an alleged spy. There’s no conclusive evidence yet about where it’s from or what it was up to. After all, it does seem like the antithesis of sneaky to outfit your spy with a harness that’s directly traceable back to its origin. “If we were using this animal for spying do you really think we’d attach a mobile phone number with the message ‘please call this number’?” Russian Col. Viktor Baranets reportedly told a broadcaster. Plus, wouldn’t you think that the second most powerful military in the world would have more advanced technology than a friendly looking whale seeking nose pats and fish from strangers?
On that point, at least, the answer is: not necessarily. Certainly, Russia’s military, as well as those of many other nations, has been developing water drones, or, as the U.S. Navy prefers to call them, “unmanned undersea vehicles.” (The word drone has “a negative connotation,” says the Navy.) These UUVs can do jobs deemed too dangerous or tedious for crewed watercraft, like mapping the seabed and coast, keeping tabs on harbors and ports, collecting items from the seabed, and counteracting mines. Russia is rumored to be working on nuclear torpedo drones, a terrifying prospect, and China has developed a fleet of drones to be used during sea battles.
Spy whales predate all that, and while they may not be what comes to mind as “military technology,” they may be superior to fancy, expensive new machinery when it comes to surveillance and minesweeping. Since the 1960s, both the Russian and U.S. militaries have been training marine mammals to do their bidding. Despite news reports in 2012 that the U.S. was planning to phase out its marine animal program by 2017 in favor of UUVs, the U.S. Navy still maintains its fleet of bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Also in 2012, Ukraine rebooted its dolphin training program, which Russia inherited after it annexed Crimea in 2014. As recently as 2016, Russia was in the market for new recruits, offering $24,000 to any dealer who could provide them with five bottlenose dolphins. Though belugas are not as common as dolphins in military marine animal programs, it would be smart to have a few in your arsenal. They operate in colder temperatures and deeper depths, perfect for, say, the waters off the coast of Norway.
Doug Cartlidge, former adviser to Russia on dolphin care, told Wired in 2007 that the Russians were training dolphins to attach mines to enemy ships and to prod enemies with a needle attached to a pressurized carbon dioxide tank, which would functionally kill whomever the dolphins touched. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, claims its dolphins have never been used to kill. These days, marine animals appear to be trained for many of the same recon, fetch, and surveillance duties as UUVs would perform.
At this point, in the U.S. Navy, UUVs are frequently used for minesweeping, says Ed Budzyna, the Navy Marine Mammal Program’s spokesman. Dolphins are “not the first to be called” these days for that kind of job. But there are many good reasons to use marine animals over UUVs for tasks that both are capable of. First off, animals don’t need to be recharged. While many current UUVs have a battery life of about 24 hours, belugas “could operate nearly indefinitely,” says Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a retired submariner. “You could take a sensor you might put on a UUV, like a sonar system, and the whale could swim out for days at a time.” Assuming the whale is trained to resurface periodically, its trainers could pull the data it collects, outfit it with a new sensor, and send it on another mission immediately. That could be what this beluga was doing. According to the BBC, marine biologist Audun Rikardsen said the harness had a GoPro camera holder attached to it. (It seems strange for the Russian military to be using GoPros for reconnaissance, but whoever outfitted the beluga in that harness appears to have wanted footage from its adventures.)
There also may be missions that animals are still better at than UUVs. Sea lions are very good at hearing and seeing underwater. “The water can be cloudy or muddy, but it’s still no trouble for a sea lion,” says Budzyna, while “robotics would have a hard time with pier pilings and murky waters.”
Depending on their mission, belugas could also be cheaper to train and manage than UUVs. The Navy says that its cost analyses have found that the MK 5 QuickFind Marine Mammal program, which uses sea lions, “is much less expensive to employ than either remotely operated vehicles or human divers for depths from 100–1000 feet.” Granted, it’s still not cheap. It costs money to transport animals for special missions, since they must travel with custom enclosures and a full veterinary staff. The Atlantic Wire reported in 2014 that the cost of the military’s mine-hunting dolphin program is about $14 million; Hakai reported earlier this year that dolphin upkeep between 2012 and 2019 cost around $75 million, averaging out to just under $11 million a year. A “cheap” UUV is in the neighborhood of $50,000, and after factoring in costs of maintenance and training staff to use it, it may actually be more cost effective to use military animals, says Clark.
Also, look at that face. A beluga’s unassuming adorableness makes it a capable spy simply because no one would suspect it (unless it had a super-suspicious label on its harness, of course). The military has relied on this tactic before, using reconnaissance pigeons to drop off recording devices, take photos, or train to identify individual faces, like Osama bin Laden’s because people generally don’t think of animals as spies. On the CIA’s page about the history of pigeon surveillance, it acknowledges the advantage conferred by pigeons’ mundanity: “Being a common species, the pigeon concealed its role as an intelligence collection platform among the activities of thousands of other birds.”
Belugas in the sea could also fly under the radar, so to speak, just as birds do in the sky. “If you’re the target, you might think, ‘It’s just a whale swimming around,’ and not be worried about what it’s doing,” says Clark. “You wouldn’t necessarily think it’s a surveillance system.” Another advantage of belugas spying in their home territory is that unlike UUVs or other water craft, belugas aren’t mechanical and may be less likely to pose a disturbance to other marine life.
Meanwhile, the beluga at least seems to be having fun in Norway, fetching rings for locals. If it is indeed a spy, it certainly won’t be the last marine mammal to turn up in search of food or attention from humans, but let’s hope this one gets to retire to a nice marine sanctuary in peace.